Hannah Fraser floated on a surfboard in a cove near the Japanese village of Taiji. It was just after sunrise on October 28, 2007, and local fishermen had lured a pod of pilot whales into the bay to be slaughtered. Fraser bobbed in the water wearing a wetsuit. In the rush to interrupt the sudden hunt—which had been postponed due to Fraser and her companions' week-long occupation of the waters—she didn't have time to slide on her mermaid tail.
Before the police arrived to usher them away, Fraser floated holding hands with five other protesters. The water around them began to steep with blood.
"The whales were squealing and looking at us," Fraser recalled in a recent phone interview. "It felt like they were saying 'save me! Save me!'"
There are an endless number of ways for people trying to raise awareness of causes that ignite a passion within them. But fundraising, marching, viral-video-making activists are a dime a dozen. Fraser's strategy for drawing attention to marine life conservation is to shimmy into a homemade, sequined, neoprene mermaid tail, drop 25 feet below the surface of the sea, and pose effortlessly for cameras among dolphins, manta rays, and sharks. She is a professional activist mermaid. You could say it's a novel approach. But there are some who question whether her work may be doing more damage than good.
As a child, Fraser's fascination with mermaids developed in tandem with her love of nature. Born in England to a rock-star father (her dad was the bassist in Free) and a "wandering hippie" mother, Fraser spent the first seven years of her life in Los Angeles before moving with her mother and sister to Melbourne after her parents separated. Despite growing up in California and Australia, Fraser didn't spend much time near the ocean as a child. In LA, her family lived in the hillside Tujunga neighborhood, while their Melbourne home was a two-and-a-half hour drive from the beach.
"Unfortunately, I did not have much of a beach upbringing," Fraser told me, her accent a pleasant blend of Californian and Australian. "I don't know where my absolute obsession for it came. I was just drawing mermaids endlessly and coral and dolphins, but it wasn't really a part of my life."
A fondness for dolphins and mermaids isn't unique to kids who grow up seaside, but Fraser's interests ran deep. At the age of nine, she made her first mermaid tail: a "highly non-functional" assemblage of orange plastic tablecloth and pillow stuffing. She loved it.
"She paddled around in the pool wearing it all summer," Fraser's mother, Ri, told me via Skype. "And this thing was heavy. It was a wonder she didn't drown."
Along with her creative bent, Fraser grew up with a deep compassion for the environment. Her mother regularly toted her and her sister along to an ashram in India, where they practiced meditation and felt connected to nature. They became vegetarian as a family, and Fraser always had an affection for creatures of all kinds, her mother told me.
"Children have that sense in them anyway, I think," Ri said. "Hannah, from a young age, knew to respect life in all forms. I also understood that there was this whole consciousness within her. She always had a real sensitivity to the pain of other people and of other creatures."
After high school, Fraser studied graphic design at university before moving in her mid-20s to Byron Bay: a seaside tropical paradise on Australia's east coast. Finally on the shore, she lived right near the beach and swam in the ocean daily. There she worked as an artist, selling illustrations, greeting cards, and modeling on the side. One day, Fraser went to a casting call for an underwater shoot, something she'd never done before.
"There were hundreds of gorgeous, leggy, 16-year-old hotties and I thought there was no way I was getting the job," Fraser said. "One by one they all tried going underwater and they looked like dying blowfish. I got under there and was like, 'ta-da!'"
Fraser said she instantly felt at ease posing under the water, and loved the final photos. It suddenly dawned on her how much better the shoot would look with her old mermaid tail. Now a little older, and armed with some artistic training, Fraser thought she could make a better version than her nine-year-old self's iteration.
Tail No. 2 was crafted using slippers, coat hangers, duct tape, and—in good Aussie girl fashion—a boomerang, all covered in neoprene. It did the trick but, not satisfied, Fraser started asking artist friends for advice and even wrote to film studios that had made mermaid tails, looking for tips. At the same time, she had a friend film her underwater wearing the tail and says she was "hooked."
Fraser made several more prototypes before perfecting the design of a tail that was beautiful but also functional: allowing her to move in the water without being too heavy or too buoyant. She created a portfolio of images, traveling to gorgeous ocean locales with her surfer boyfriend and convincing the surf photographers to snap a few images of her, tailed-up, beneath the waves.
"I got on the cover of a couple of surf magazines and had some articles written about me, so that really helped raise my profile," Fraser said. "I had gotten a couple of little jobs but I just thought 'let me create this vocation and hopefully people will pay me for it.' It was a slow build."
Her new career ambition took an auspicious turn during an environmental protest in Byron Bay. A planned overpass threatened to disturb local wetlands and Fraser decided to attend a demonstration on a nearby bridge protesting the development. Fraser had long participated in acts of eco-activism—she told me she used to go into the forest dressed as a fairy to disrupt clear-cutting operations—and decided, since it was a water-related cause, to don her tail for the occasion.
Eventually police arrived to move people away from traffic, Fraser said. With her tail, she was, naturally, unable to walk, so she suggested the officers carry her away instead. The police convinced another protester to carry Fraser away, but not before the local magazine snapped a front-page photo of the standoff. A lightbulb went off.
"I thought 'oh, I can use this for good! This is really cool,'" Fraser said.
From there, her work really began to pick up. Fraser paid her bills by mermaid-modeling for fashion and commercial shoots and spent the rest of her time doing eco-activism. She said activism opportunities started to emerge after she helped organize the surf protest in Taiji. The protest—calling for an end to the dolphin and whale hunts—brought together surfers, actors, and other activists. It was even included in the much-discussed documentary The Cove.
Demonstrations were just the beginning of Fraser's activism career. As she gained more experience and skills swimming and posing under the water, she started to catch the eye of eco-minded filmmakers and photographers. She was thrilled at the new opportunities, even when filmmaker Steve Morris contacted her asking if she would be willing to freedive with great white sharks, without a protective cage, for a documentary he was making.
"I'd never even seen a shark before," Fraser said. "But I realized that being an advocate and a voice for the ocean, I couldn't pick and choose. It's all interconnected and if one species goes, the whole eco-food chain disintegrates and they're all gone. So I had to stand up for the sharks."
But there are some conservationists who worry work like the type Fraser does could end up doing more harm than good, at least when it comes to posing with potentially dangerous marine predators like great white sharks.
"There are many different approaches to getting conservation done," said Rick MacPherson, an ocean conservation biologist and founder of Pelagia Consulting, an ocean science think tank. "My concerns are that, as conservationists we've worked incredibly hard since 1975 to change the global perception of sharks that Jaws created of an eating machine, a monster. I fear what could happen if an accident were to occur."
MacPherson told me best estimates show 25 percent of all shark species are at risk of extinction and approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year through interactions with fisheries alone. He said given the dire situation, any efforts to raise awareness and increase focus on conservation are worthwhile. But he worries that, in the wrong context, images like Fraser's could make people believe sharks are harmless and you can just hop in the water without any protection and swim with them, which isn't exactly true.
"Sharks are no different than big, charismatic predators in any ecosystem," MacPherson said. "I've seen people compare them to well-trained dogs. They're not. They're predators. They deserve respect. They deserve distance. They deserve our attention and they deserve conservation, but you can go a little bit too far in trying to meet that end."
Fraser told me she doesn't take this responsibility lightly, and prepares for months before being photographed with a new species. Over the years, she has posed with dolphins, manta rays, humpback whales, and tiger sharks, always to much media fanfare, and always in an effort to raise awareness about marine life conservation. When posing with wild animals, Fraser has to be able to remain calm and peaceful, something she says she achieves by tapping into the meditation techniques she learned as a child. It's a matter of safety: Fraser poses without any protective gear, often deep enough that getting to the surface quickly in an emergency could be impossible.
She told me she tries to never disturb the animals. Even as much as she'd love to run her fingers along a dolphin's back, it goes against her conservationist beliefs. But sometimes the animals initiate interaction.
"The tiger sharks were epic, amazing, and interactive," Fraser said, adding that the sharks would swim past her hand over and over for a tickle. "It was so incredible that they enjoyed being touched. There's no other animal in the whole ocean that comes up and presents itself to be touched like that, in my experience."
But for all the joy Fraser gets from immersing herself in the life aquatic, it's also a physically demanding gig. To create her work, Fraser often has to be tethered to the ocean floor, 20 to 30 feet below the surface, for hours at a time. She can hold her breath for up to two minutes if she's swimming, three minutes if she's posing still, and she doesn't wear her own oxygen tank—she relies on safety divers to bring her air between shots.
"There's very few people who can pull that off," said Shawn Heinrichs, a cinematographer and conservationist who has worked with Fraser on multiple projects. "Very few people realize when she does this work how hard it is. This isn't just some pretty little runway model. This is the hardest work we've ever done."
But Heinrichs and Fraser truly believe capturing stunning, unique images with marine life helps open a dialogue that can lead to real change. Every time they've worked on a campaign together, a requisite for any media outlet seeking to publish the images is that it has to emphasize that the campaign is about ocean conservation, Heinrichs said.
In 2013, the pair teamed up on a video where Fraser swam with manta rays as part of a campaign to raise awareness about manta ray gill hunting. Following the campaign, a majority of nations voted in favor of adding manta rays to Appendix II of the the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—a listing that prohibits manta rays or manta ray parts from being internationally traded unless the exporting company can provide documentation that the rays are from sustainable fisheries. Heinrichs says the mermaid tail might seem like a gimmick, but it can be a very powerful tool.
"People don't want to learn about the doom and gloom," Heinrichs said. "We needed to find a way to reach people that was accessible, non-intrusive, exciting, and engaging. Something that makes them excited and passionate. Once they love these animals and they're passionate, then we remind them about the hard messages and what's happening to them and why we need to protect them."
It's difficult to measure how much of an impact these projects have. Heinrichs and Fraser consider decisions like the CITES listing a victory, but they were far from the only activists shouting about the plight of manta rays. Like lots of activism, it would be easy for cynics to write off the work Fraser does as shallow.
Mermaid tails recently became a pool toy trend, mermaid swim schools have been cropping up across the continent, and Fraser is now far from the only mermaid model for hire—all of which might make it more difficult for her to capture an audience for her activism work. But she's not discouraged. If anything she's more dedicated to her eco-activism work than ever before, because she says we're running out of time to make some real changes.
"We have maybe 20 years at best before the ocean collapses, unless we do something right now," Fraser said. "I don't feel like I have the leisure to just make pretty pictures."